Holi In Bhansali’s World

From Ram-Leela to Padmaavat, Bhansali began experimenting with using Holi to further his storytelling
Holi In Bhansali’s World

A festival is a welcome fracture in Hindi cinema. It can be used to turn away briefly from the story, revel in chromatic excess and percussive celebration; set time, and allow for love to express itself as a more full-bodied gesture. In 2 States (2014), for example, the song ‘Uffo’ swiftly ushers in Navratri, then Christmas, Gokul Ashtami and Holi, establishing that the college romance between two lovers in their salad days has stretched successfully, unwavering over the years. The festival, then, becomes the space where love can elaborate itself, outside the rhythms of normal life. Unlike the ‘dream song’, which allows characters to fabulate in places foreign to the story, the ‘festival song’ allows characters to fabulate within places in the story — yoking the demand for fabulation to demands of realism. 

The first Indian technicolor film, Aan (1952), had a Holi song, understandably. Patches of color on the face could finally be seen as color and not a gash; sprays of color could finally look like chromatic play and not clouds of dust. Colour gave cinema a further lift, to keep steering the film slightly away from its central spine. From ‘Holi Ke Din’ in Sholay (1975), ‘Rang Barse Bheege Chunar Wali’ in Silsila (1981), ‘Soni Soni’ in Mohabbatein (2000), ‘Holi Khele Raghuveera’ in Baghban (2003), or even the popular ‘Balam Pichkari’ from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (2014), the Holi song allows a visual reprieve from the weave of their storytelling — either urban concrete or rustic dust. But when the predominant texture of the film itself is leaking with color, when the dominant tone of storytelling is inherently excessive, as it is in the cinema of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, what can these festival songs offer? 

‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’

If the application of gulaal on the face of the lover is a gesture of love returned — in ‘Tum Tak’ from Raanjhanaa, ‘Haule Haule’ in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and ‘Tere Rang’ in Atrangi Re — Bhansali, in ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’ from Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela (2013), turns this gesture into foreplay, blurring the demands of love and lust. 

One of the many mythological stories that underpin Holi, celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna, is of an anxious Krishna, dark skinned, wondering if fair Radha loves him. His mother pushes him to ask Radha to apply color on him, which Radha does, staining his face and validating his love, their love. That this story sees fairness bestow affection on darkness, that the divine dark skinned lover is seeking, in both insecurity and anticipation, a response, is given a fragile interpretation in Bhansali’s cinema, where the actresses are always a few shades lighter, given the politics of desirability in commercial Hindi cinema, inflected by both patriarchy and racism; fragile, because the one seeking validation is not always the darker one. 

‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’ becomes a peacocking, arousing in the other a heat, through the choreographed gesture of applying gulaal on the self — Leela’s fingers flow as she moves her stained fingers from cheek to neck, like water, fluid, a boneless grace that runs past the ridge between cheek and neck. When Ram mimes, with gulaal that she should color the parting of her hair — a symbol of marriage — and then slips his hands down his face to rub the edges of his lower lip — a symbol of sex — Leela flings the gulaal in the air, creating in the midst of all that chaos, their own sealed cauldron of desire, and kisses him, the red on his lips, now on hers. Applying color on the lover is given a new, more passionate reading. He is dazed. She winks — to the beat, this is a Bhansali stamp where every nip in the muscle is choreographed. In the end, as Ram is pulled away by his friends before the Saneda men pummel him, you see Leela looking back at Ram’s hands as it disappears into the crowd. The look is no longer of lust, but longing. The song, then, became the stretch in which lust is renegotiated as love.

 Colouring in Holi

This desire to have the lover stain oneself is more literally rendered in ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ from Bajirao Mastani, with Mastani (Padukone) wearing all white, dancing in front of her lover Bajirao (Singh) with gulaal in her hands, pinching her lehenga to move her feet, but the touch is so delicate, the red of her hands doesn’t stain the white. If lust is expressed in Ram-Leela through Holi, here, it is the desire to love and get married that is given voice as Mastani points to her parting, looks at Bajirao and demands, to stain that split red. These are, to put it blandly, important plot points, without which the film’s emotional clarity frays. 

If the ‘Lahu’ or blood in ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’ was metaphoric, in Padmaavat, the blood is more literal. When Alauddin Khilji wonders if he should play Holi with his enemy, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), his spy asks “Rang se ya talvaar se?” (With color or the sword?) When the spy opens up the cloth with color to apply some on Khilji, the latter dunks his face into it, emerging stained. There is no lover for him, to flush his cheeks with color. A loneliness descends on his malice.

The song ‘Holi (Manganiyars & Langa’s folk song)’ follows this, where Padmavati (Padukone) jousts with Ratan Singh, flinging gulaal at his Rimple and Harpreet Narula couture, touching his feet, inviting him into the room as he rubs her with color. If ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’ was trying to push lust towards love, this song insists on lust as the centerpiece of the love the two share. 

Both ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ and ‘Holi’ are largely monochromatic songs. In the former the reds of the hand and the lining of her choli puncture the white; in the latter pink powder clouds the golden. This is Bhansali jousting with conventions, as he has been doing throughout his filmography — to utilize the many shades of one color, and to celebrate that range as he would celebrate the range across a spectrum. It is often hard to notice these rips given how blinding the predictable beauty of his movies can be. But they do exist, his frisking with tropes.   

For example, in ‘Ram Chaale Leela’ — an “item song” — the thrusts, the pirouettes, the acrobatics, are all overshadowed by a moment, when Priyanka Chopra Jonas decides, in a gesture of erotic coyness, to button up her blouse, instead of buttoning it down. In a song meant to celebrate the cleavage, to cover it, is Bhansali playing with heavy expectations of cinematic tropes. The cleavage is etched in concealer, nonetheless, but the point here is not literal. There is an ambivalence in the meaning of this gesture, even as the gesture itself is rendered with dramatic clarity. 

It is apt that Bhansali would use the Holi song to perform his cinematic play. Afterall, it is a festival that encourages the laxing of boundaries — social, and ethical, too. (Who hasn’t felt the creeping chill behind the chorus, “Bura na mano Holi hai”?) A lovely early 19th Century Mughal miniature of Holi celebrations, with Krishna and the gopis, shows an ensemble of animal skin-clad yogis and a dancing hijra, as though gesturing at the possibility of the margins being woven into the mainstream in celebration. This is a day that should, in theory, allow for the rest of rigidities. And few would, like Bhansali, take a thing, the thing, associated with color and strip it off its very essence — reckless color — and remake it in the shadow of their craft.

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